A Complicated Thanksgiving
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The holiday season is upon us. The interfaith ECRA Thanksgiving service is 3:00 o’clock today at the North Shore Baptist church. I’m sure many of you have plans to travel or welcome guests this week. Some of you have already started planning the holiday meal. Growing up, I remember that my mother (who is here today) made everyone around the table say something they were grateful for before we could eat. She made sure we put some thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving.
This year I am thankful for many things. I am grateful for all of you, for this congregation, for home and family arriving this week, for the food we will prepare and share, and for the fact that I, unlike too many in this city and across the world, never have never had to worry about when my next meal is coming.
I am thankful for many things, but this year my list of thanksgivings feels more complicated. The daily news out of Washington gives me such a belly-ache. So, one thing for which I am aware that I am grateful is that things haven’t gotten any worse. I am just holding my breath hoping our luck doesn’t run out, just waiting for things to fall apart. This year my Thanksgiving is complicated by worries, tension, and dread.
It makes me thankful and hopeful that for some, this dread has become like an alarm clock. People woke up in defense of women, of immigrants, for the sick and those in need of healthcare. People woke up to confront the malignant disease of racism and to cultural indifference to sexual harassment. People woke up to the ecological dangers we face as the inevitable consequences of our economy. I am grateful, especially for young people already living in and making diverse communities of hopeful change and resistance.
New biblical scholarship on today’s gospel lesson, the parable of the talents, has woke up too. It leads us to reassess what Jesus may be trying to teach us. The first task of any preacher or biblical scholar in understanding as best they can what the bible says is to spell out the plain meaning of scripture. What did Jesus’ words mean to those who first heard it?
I have a drawer full of sermons on this parable of the talents. All of them identifying with the first two slaves who risked their talents to create even more. However, it’s probably most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have identified most strongly with the third servant, the one who buried his talent in the ground and thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 25:30).
The landowner is “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The average peasant listening to Jesus’ parable did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. He is the very opposite of the God of Israel who brought God’s people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig and reaping harvests that they did not plant. It’s not like the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, leaving dropped sheaves behind, not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It’s not like the sower Jesus tells about who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream.
In fact, according to religious teaching at that time, the prudent and just thing to do in caring for another’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have given a thumbs-up to the actions of the third servant, because he is the one who said no. I will not participate, I will not cooperate, I refuse to be part of your system.
The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Heiremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Cristianorum Series Latina, LXXIX, 61). In the first-century Mediterranean world, the common belief was that the economic pie was “limited” and already distributed, so an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud.
Honorable people, therefore, were interested only in what was rightfully theirs and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)
Perhaps the third servant’s appraisal of his master as a “hard” man (v. 24), with which the master does not disagree, indicates that he had no feelings towards the poor who got poorer as the first two servants got richer. That is, the first two servants were as hard and uncaring towards the poor as their master, which is why they were able to make so much more money — yet that is why they are praised. In the kingdom of God, in which Jesus has called us to dwell starting now and forever, the highest praise is reserved for those who make of themselves a gift to others. “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).
The so-called “lazy” servant said no to the ways of the world, the ways of Empire and dog-eat-dog competition, and so, was cast out just as Jesus was. The way of Jesus leads to the cross. If we truly want to ‘make America great again,’ we could start by shoring up the traditional civic value that those who have more should pay more in support of our common life and society. Throughout the 1950’s the top federal income tax rate was 91%. Such progressive tax policy seems shocking today, especially in Illinois, which is one of only 8 States to have a flat income tax, placing a proportionally higher burden on those with less.
If there is a silver lining to these days, it is that we are waking up to the fact that democracy is not inevitable or self-perpetuating. It requires involvement, it requires that we be a nation of laws that protect minorities and defend the value of truth.
The third slave said “no” to his master because he said “yes” to God. We too, said “yes” in our baptism. We have vowed to renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us from God. We have vowed to live among God’s faithful people, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This is not a burden, but the source of our joy and thanksgiving. Even now the kingdom of God is breaking in all around us, in us, and through us, and among us. Thanks be to God.